Black Actors Discuss Stereotypes
A group of celebrities speaks on images of black Americans portrayed in films.
By Shannon J. Owens
LAKE BUENA VISTA -- From the resurgence of the glorification of black-pimp imagery to the infamous Don Imus remarks, African-Americans in Hollywood shoulder a responsibility to destroy stereotypes, a panel of entertainment-industry leaders said this month at the 2007 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference Town Hall meeting.
The two-hour discussion was led by Emmy award-winning actress Lynn Whitfield, CSI: NY actor Hill Harper, director/actor Robert Townsend, ICM talent agent Andrea Nelson Meigs, Film Life Inc. CEO Jeff Friday and NPR host Ed Gordon at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort.
Conference attendees packed the Pacific Banquet Hall to listen to a discussion on the meeting's theme question: Are blacks in Hollywood getting their piece of the (financial) action? But most responses circled back to a larger theme that gripped the nation a month ago: Who is in control of black images across the media?
"A lot of what's going on in Hollywood is black-on-black TV and film crime," Townsend said.
Despite the historic successes of Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, who became the first African American best actor and actress Oscar winners in the same year (2002), the goal of achieving more quality roles and projects for black actors is still in the future , industry insiders said.
Whitfield said she has witnessed black actors "dumb themselves down" during auditions by taking on exaggerated stereotypical "black" speech patterns without request from a director. Behind the camera, things are not much different. Some black writers and directors push films or projects that fit certain "pimp" or "buffoon" stereotypes because those are the only projects they think studios will support, Whitfield said.
"And that's when it's self-sabotage. We as African-American entertainers need a refreshening of our consciousness of who we really are," Whitfield said. "So often we are so incredibly insulting to ourselves, and I find that one of the saddest parts of the business."
Whitfield established her legacy in Hollywood for her Emmy award-winning portrayal in the HBO biography The Josephine Baker Story. Baker, known for her seductive dances, is considered the first black female entertainer to have broken the racial barrier in Europe and the United States, refusing to perform for segregated audiences in the 1920s and '30s.
"I'm not one of the people who say we should not give our audiences a wide variety, diversity, because our communities are made up of all kinds of people," Whitfield said. "The problem for me is that we don't have enough stories being told -- so that all the weight comes down to one or two actors a year to do the right thing by a role."
Shannon J. Owens is a Sentinel Staff Writer for Orlando Sentinel.